Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

This review was originally posted here on the Legend Awards website. I received a review copy of this book from the folks at the David Gemmell Legend Awards because it was nominated for a Morningstar Award (debut novel). Sadly, it didn’t make the shortlist, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.

Fire and Thorns is about Elisa, a sixteen year old second princess who was chosen by God for a higher purpose and who, at the very start of the novel, is married off to a neighbouring king. This is very much a coming of age story in which we watch Elisa grow from a fat and useless princess — in her own eyes — to queen.

When she was a baby, God sent Elisa a Godstone, a gem which is lodged in her bellybutton and which marks her as chosen to perform a divine service. But she has no idea what that service might be, or how she can possibly achieve it.

I liked the setting Carson chose to write. It’s a blend of Middle Eastern location — deserts, adobe houses, dark-skinned people — and Spanish linguistics. At first I was a little geographically confused when Elisa first left her father’s kingdom (I wished the book included a map) but this was resolved as the story wore on and she travelled more. Likewise, I found the Spanish-inspired names a bit confusing in what my brain associated with an Arabic setting, but culturally, I think it worked, especially as we learnt more about the religion and the Godstones.

At the start of the novel, Elisa is has a bit of an inferiority complex. However, she’s been well trained by her tutors and when she arrives in her new kingdom, she discovers that her skills — particularly what she knows of war and strategy — can be put to good use. She is also overweight and, although she never defines herself entirely by her weight, part of her low self-esteem is tied to her thinking everyone sees her as “fat and useless”. When she faces trials throughout the book, it’s really nice to watch her confidence and self-worth grow as she overcomes them. By the end, I found it quite plausible that she could go on to be a great queen.

The main criticism I have, and the only thing that made this feel like a first novel, is that the setting was a little bit under-described. Despite being told in first person, I thought a little bit more setting description beyond the character’s immediate surroundings would have been nice. For example, some explanation of the nature of the jungle separating her father’s and husband’s desert kingdoms. Since Elisa is well-educated, I think this could have easily worked. In the same vein, some of the secondary characters could have been fleshed out a little more. Also, the role of women in their societies was never explicitly discussed. I got the feeling that there were few prejudices stopping women from being in power (there were no issues with her sister inheriting her father’s throne, for example), but then why was she married off without consultation? Maybe because she was a princess, but we don’t get a chance to find out how similar arrangements are made among commoners of her father’s kingdom (though there are vague hints about how it works in her husband’s kingdom).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Fire and Thorns. According to Carson’s website, it’s the first book in a trilogy, but it is quite self-contained and absolutely stands alone. From the ending, I can see where the sequels might take the story, but there is certainly no cliff-hanger and no niggling loose ends. I’ll probably take a look at the next book when it comes out, but it’s not quite at the top of my to read list.

I recommend Fire and Thorns to lovers of fantasy and YA fantasy, especially those who’ve had enough of medieval-style settings.

4 / 5 stars

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